The following is a gchat exchange I conducted with a, like, awesome best-selling author of teen books: the masterful wordsmith Mr. John Green. I've enjoyed all of his novels, but John has a special place in my heart because circa 2004 I proclaimed him to be one of eight "Fabulous 20-Somethings" for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye edition, where I was then a reporter. The fact that his latest, "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," with super-star "Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist" author David Levithan is destined to be a hit confirms that I am either 1) a psychic or 2) always right.
In "Grayson," we meet two rather intrepid guys of the same name living in the greater-Chicago area as they grapple with their respective straight and gay coming-of-age identities. The maturation of these heart-warming young men is upstaged only by one of my newfound favorite characters in the young adult genre, a 300-pound, football-playing drama queen named Tiny Cooper, who cannot hide his exuberance for life or his next cute boyfriend from anyone, yet alone the supporting characters who revel and revolt in the remaining sliver of his limelight that falls on their shoulders. When Tiny writes and stars in the school musical about his personal story, only our heroic introverts, the Will Graysons, can help him sing his true song.
Read a review of the book or buy it here.
If you're new to John Green's work, I also recommend "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines," and "Paper Towns." His millions (for reals!) of fans also enjoy his digital humor, Nerdfighters, on the web. Because, you know, print is dead and boys don't read books.
me: JOHN! You're, like, a famous novelist and web celebrity now. Who do I have to broker a deal with to get some of your 1 million twitter followers?
sparksflyup: Oh, you can just broker that deal directly with me. I am happy to sell you some of my followers. You can have the pornbots for sure. There are like 100,000 of them.
me: Awesome. I think the CPM is like 2 cents.
me: So I loved "Will Grayson, Will Grayson." It was tough, because "Looking For Alaska" was a very special book to me when I read it years ago.
sparksflyup: Yeah, twitter followers are apparently very hard to monetize. Fortunately, I hate money.
sparksflyup: Thanks, Maegan! I think really highly of you as a reader, so that means a lot to me.
me: The thing that really struck me about "Will Grayson" (apart from working Frenchy's the porn store, which is around the corner from my old Chicago apartment, into a novel), was the perspective of the characters. So many authors would have written from Tiny Cooper's perspective. This literally larger-than-life high school kid who still steals the show...
sparksflyup: Frenchy's is also around the corner from my old office. :)
sparksflyup: I've always loved novels that are not about the narrator (or at least not solely about the narrator). Every year or so, I reread "All The King's Men, which I think is a pretty perfect book.
me: (I'm sure neither of us has ever been to Frenchy's.)
sparksflyup: And I reread "Gatsby" a lot as well.
sparksflyup: Well, certainly, if either of us HAD ever been to Frenchy's, it would have been strictly a research-type trip.
me: In the name of quality journalism, of course.
sparksflyup: Obviously, our book is no "Gatsby." But I wanted to write one of those books narrated by the sidekick. I like sidekicks. I've always thought of myself as one, I guess.
me: Well, don't say that. The verdict on that always comes when authors are dead. Cheerful thought! :)
me: That's interesting, because I was always the drama queen. It was great to read through both Will Graysons' eyes.
sparksflyup: That's true. But I don't, like, think of myself as playing in the big leagues as those fellas did.
sparksflyup: Were you really a drama queen? I suppose I can see that. You've got a lot of charisma about you. I was always fascinated with charisma, but I never much had it.
me: But you captured something very serious in the book. Coming out, how it effects gay and straight kids.
me: This is a big deal, and is a part of this generation's political legacy.
sparksflyup: Absolutely. Things have changed so much that ten years ago this would have been a utopian gay novel, some kind of campy fantasy. And now it's actually fairly realistic, I think, to the coming out stories of many American teenagers.
sparksflyup: Coming out is still a very difficult process for many, but there are a lot of openly gay teenagers in American high schools. I meet them all the time. They are LOVELY.
me: The courage it takes for them to be themselves and develop fully was so well articulated in this book.
sparksflyup: Thanks. I suppose there is something inevitably political about writing a novel like this one. But mostly David and I wanted to tell as honest and true a story as possible, you know?
me: Also the courage for their straight friends, like the character Maura, who is in love with a gay guy, and how she confronts that. It was robustly illustrated without being kitschy.
sparksflyup: Right. Poor Maura. It's hard out there for the Mauras of the world.
me: Well, it was amazing how the use of building an online identity was used. Usually we see that on the "Today Show" with the headline "STOP SEXTING!"
me: This is such a reality of how kids develop these days. Their online worlds are a fluid part of their IRL identities.
sparksflyup: Yeah, I thought David did a really good job of exploring those questions of identity-formation... Both of us wanted to explore questions of avatars, and not in the I-see-you blue-people kind of way. I love the ways teenagers play with identity, and we wanted to explore that in this book.
me: People our age have an online "presence." We use web pages like business cards and post pictures. Our younger counterparts in the Millennial gen don't have that separation.
sparksflyup: Yeah, and you think very consciously about that person, the online person who is not quite you.
me: I got email my freshman year of college!
sparksflyup: I think that's a very good observation.
me: Now I am a "digital strategist." It will not be that way for them.
sparksflyup: Teenagers who came of age with email do not make the same distinctions that we old people in our 30s make.
me: *SPOILER ALERT * It's fair to ask if the character Isaac really DID exist? I mean, he obviously didn't exist, but in Will Grayson's mind he totally did.
me: I can count a number of times I associated love feelings like that onto someone who DID exist, and it turned out to be a figment of my imagination.
sparksflyup: Oh yeah me too.
me: Then I stalked them on Facebook and noticed when pretty chicks wrote on their walls.
sparksflyup: That's a very interesting question. My Will Grayson is obsessed with trying to establish how and whether other people are real. Hence his fascination with Schrodinger's Cat.
me: He was sooooo romantic with that. I, too, would have worn an "I'm With Phil Wrayson" shirt to the big finale.
sparksflyup: Thanks. I'm all about trying to make physics sexy.
me: Winnie Cooper has math books for girls about that now. It's an industry.
sparksflyup: I love her. What a career!
sparksflyup: Teenagers are confronting all of these issues of whether their relationships are REALLY REAL, which I think both David and i wanted to explore in the book. But we were also confronting those issues when we were high school students. I remember thinking of my high school girlfriend, "Do I love her? How do I know? Does she love me? What does she mean when she says she loves me?" Same questions. It's just that technology has complicated those questions a little.
me: It provides many entry points to brooding, wounding, manipulation and that once-in-a-lifetime-bliss that is high school romance.
me: I sort of wish I'd had Twitter back in school. I can think of a few crafty DMs that would have swayed a certain football player or two...
sparksflyup: It would have been nice to have peer relationships with people who didn't know what a massive dork I was as a teenager. You can say a lot in 140 characters.
me: Ha. I just had a dorky book-nerd read of that sentence. We should make a list of tweets from the best 140 characters in literature. Someday...
sparksflyup: Someone has done hilarious 140-character summaries of great novels.
me: Well, my cat is named Scarlett O'Hara and she has a Twitter account. (@KittyScarlettO)
sparksflyup: hahaha. There were some young adult authors--I can't say names--who collaborated on the twitter account @mybigdick, which was nothing but a collection of unfathomably filthy jokes about penis size.
me: I'm sure those authors frequent Frenchy's. Like, on purpose, though.
sparksflyup: Right, not as research.
me: Do you have a favorite Will Grayson?
sparksflyup: My favorite Will Grayson is of course David's Will Grayson.
me: I didn't like him as much as yours at first. I resisted his negativity.
sparksflyup: I find it very difficult to like anything I've written.
sparksflyup: Yeah, he is very hard to like at first, by design.
me: Your Will Grayson was so adorable right away.
sparksflyup: He's a kid in a tremendous amount of pain.
me: The turning point for me with David's Will Grayson was Tiny Cooper's glass bowl.
sparksflyup: And I think his anger and depression are drawn so well that it can be hard to read about him.
sparksflyup: Right, when David's Will Grayson cracks open, it's an extraordinary moment, and you realize how much you love this kid. I thought it was really beautifully done, and I feel like I can say that, since I didn't do it.
me: It wasn't just that, it was the prose as well. David's Will was at first so digitally written. Short, quippy. So many IM messages.
sparksflyup: I figured my Will Grayson needed to be cute and likeable and funny to counteract the journey his namesake has to take.
me: When he opens up, the writing opens up. It was perfectly executed.
Me: Did you ever read the other great book about Chicago teens, "Crossing California?"
sparksflyup: Great book!
me: The bands reminded me of those scenes.
johnssecretemail: Why is that book not a classic?
me: It will be when the author is dead.
johnssecretemail: Yeah, let's hope. I mean, not for him to die, but for the book to be remembered.
me: Exactly. The sequel as well.
me: Was this the first time you wrote with a co-author? No, you do the Nerdfighter site with your bro, right?
sparksflyup: I run the videoblog with my brother, yeah, so I have experience in collaboration, but I've never written a novel with anyone before.
sparksflyup: It took us a long time (we started before "Looking for Alaska" came out in 2005), but it was so fun to work with David.
me: Oh, wow!
sparksflyup: I think it was slow partly because we wanted to keep doing it.
me: That's such a long project. And you both achieved so much in between.
sparksflyup: It was fun. We knew who we were writing for. Yeah, we were doing other things all the time, of course. Novels always take me a long time.
me: OK, a few last thoughts, since no one will read this if it is a LONG blog post.
me: People, they don't f*ing get quality long-form work anymore.
sparksflyup: So true! No one reads to the end!
me: 1) Will this outsell the books at Frenchy's?
sparksflyup: 1) While French's CALLS ITSELF a bookstore, I'm not sure they technically sell any books. So yes.
me: 2) Do you feel that you have lived up to your title as a "Fabulous 20-Something"?
me: (but you haven't BEEN there.)
sparksflyup: (True! Ish!)
sparksflyup: 2) I will tell you, Maegan, that I have worked very hard to be the Fabulous 20-something that you once so kindly proclaimed me to be. On my 30th Birthday, my wife told me, "Well, you're no longer fabulous. Now you're just old."
sparksflyup: You probably don't know this, but that article came out at the PERFECT MOMENT. I had just started dating the woman who is now my wife, and her parents came to town the day that story was in the paper about how I was one of the most fabulous 20-somethings in Chicago. And it totally impressed them. So thank you!
me: Oh for sure. I'm sure the Katherines of Chicago are also grateful.
sparksflyup: Yes, well, they were dumping me, not the other way around :)
me: Hey -- Will Grayson broke Jane's heart a little at first.
sparksflyup: That's true.
me: Those quiet guys know what they're up to.
me: FINAL QUESTION!! 3) If you were the star of a musical, how would it end?
sparksflyup: Great question.
me: (i love seeing the "john is typing" over and over...)
sparksflyup: Yeah it's too good of a question for me to do it justice.
me: That means I am a Fabulous Journalist.
sparksflyup: Yes but are you still 20-something?
me: Six more months! HOLLA!
sparksflyup: I'm jealous.
sparksflyup: My musical would end with this huge dance number. Only I wouldn't be dancing. I'd get to sneak off and sit in the front row and watch everyone I like dance.
sparksflyup: That's how it would end.