In a literary world, where most new novelists are creating protagonists with vampire tendencies, and paranormal extracurricular activities, there are writers like John Corey Whaley, who still believe that, well, normal humans with everyday foibles can still attract the lay reader. And with his book Where Things Come Back, he’s been rewarded aplenty for his bravery, first by the literary community—no less than the very prestigious The National Book Foundation—who recently placed him on its elite list of 5 Under 35. Whaley’s unique style has earned him a hoard of readers who adore his young adult tome and appreciate the imperfect hero they see in Cullen Witter, the book’s teen protagonist. Literary pundits for their part, who are always on the lookout for little geniuses of the written word, practically see a young Harper Lee in him.
The Louisiana Tech University graduate, who once taught Middle School English, because, well, that’s what novelists-in-waiting tend to do, has created the sort of well-fleshed out characters that—in the world of instant quick publishing—many thought didn’t think could be created anymore. There is Benton Sage, who lends some spiritual overtones to the book, teen hot bomb Ada Taylor, and at the center of it all Cullen’s little brother Gabriel.
Whaley has also won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, a prize that isn’t to be taken too lightly, as it has been handed to a host of career-writers who’ve come before him. The fact that he has had so much acclaim in so little time is not lost on Whaley. He’s currently working on two novels.
Q & A
You started off writing scientific fiction as a kid. What made you jump genres?
I “jumped” genres in my writing around the time I became preoccupied with coming-of-age fiction. This would have been late high school and early college. Before then, I’d read mostly science fiction—Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and so on. But, books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye changed the way I looked at storytelling and definitely changed my mindset on the types of stories I wanted to tell.
Do you remember exactly where you were when you learned that you had won Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature?
How could I forget! I was actually driving from Louisiana to Dallas, TX, to accept the Morris Award for Debut Fiction, for which I’d received the winning phone call the day prior. So, winning a second award was nowhere in my mind. My phone rang and I’m so glad I was exiting the interstate as the Printz Committee started screaming in my ear that I’d won. There couldn’t been a major traffic accident.
And speaking of awards, do you feel a little anxiety about your next book? That it has to surpass When Things Come Back in acclaim and sales?
You know, I’m trying to take whatever anxiety and pressure come along with having an award winning debut novel and use them for good–sort of accept the challenge to follow it up with something worthy of the first book. But, also, I try to set all of that pressure aside, forget that anything at all has happened over the past year and write from a place of honesty and desperation…which is what I think made the first book work so well.
What’s the most way off interpretation you’ve read from critics about your book?
I once read a review stating that I’d used the Bible to “beat up” Christianity. That, I thought, was a pretty far cry from manner in which I treated religion in the book.
Most writers can only dream of having such a successful debut as you did with your book. What have you learned about the publishing business and the writing process that you’d like to pass on to others?
I’ve really learned to appreciate all of the many people it takes to make a book successful and get it into the hands of readers. I’ve met so many librarians and bloggers and fans that it’s been completely overwhelming to witness how many people have such a pure, beautiful passion for books. If I had to pass along anything to other writers it would be to enjoy every single minute of it and to show that to your fans–let them all know how completely happy you are that you get to be a part of something so great. And then fight to stay a part of it as long as you can.
You taught English for nearly five years. Did your days as an educator prepare you somewhat for life as a full-time author?
My five years of teaching prepared me to defeat dragons in ancient kingdoms. It was literally the most difficult, stressful, exhausting thing I’ve ever experienced, which is why I respect teachers so much. My author life is very different, very much more relaxed and laid back. But, I appreciate what teaching taught me about speaking to others, especially kids and teenagers. I tour a lot and I’m always thrilled to share my stories with kids because it reminds me of my favorite part of being a teacher.
Your parents must be proud. Are they the type to nudge everyone at a public place and point to you: “My kid is an author! My kid is an author. What does your kid do?”
My parents are great people and very, very proud. My dad openly stalks me on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. It’s so great. I don’t let them point me out to people because it freaks me out, but they totally do it anyway.
Is your character Cullen the namesake of the poet Countee Cullen?
Actually, no. Though that would be a cool story. Cullen is the name of the small town beside my hometown of Springhill, Louisiana. I stole the name from the town’s welcome sign just after I came up with the idea for the novel. In fact, most of the names in the story are from small town in Arkansas and Louisiana.
You and the character of Cullen are both from small towns. Is that the only aspect of the novel that’s autobiographical?
There are a few tiny things about Cullen that are autobiographical–his book title collection and teenage cynicism, for instance. There are also some autobiographical elements to Gabriel (Cullen’s younger brother) as well.
Would you mind playing casting director for a second? If When Things Come Back were to be adapted for the screen, who would be your choice to play the characters?
As a huge movie fan, I definitely have some dream actors in my mind were WTCB ever to become a film. I really like Johnny Simmons as the lead-Cullen Witter. He just looks the part and is a great actor. For Gabriel, Joel Courtney, who played the lead in Super 8 last year and was so awesome. I haven’t really thought of the other parts too much, but I always pictured the father character as someone like David Strathairn and the mother as Patricia Clarkson.