John Corey Whaley grew up in the small town of Springhill, Louisiana, where he learned to be sarcastic and to tell stories. He has a B.A. in English from Louisiana Tech University, as well as an M.A in Secondary English Education. He started writing stories about aliens and underwater civilizations when he was around ten or eleven, but now writes realistic YA fiction (which sometimes includes zombies…). He taught public school for five years and spent much of that time daydreaming about being a full-time writer … and dodging his students’ crafty projectiles. He is terrible at most sports, but is an avid kayaker and bongo player. He is obsessed with movies, music, and traveling to new places. He is an incredibly picky eater and has never been punched in the face, though he has come quite close. His favorite word is defenestration, which is the inspiration for his second book. Where Things Come Back is his first novel.
I had the pleasure of meeting Whaley at an event for debut authors at ALA Annual in New Orleans. His shy smile and humble description of his first book immediately won over the librarians in the room. I knew I had to read his book, Where Things Come Back, which was described as a story about a small town overtaken by enthusiasm from the discovery of a long lost bird, and one teenager trying to survive. Now that Where Things Come Back has been named a Morris Award Finalist, it is all time that we know John Corey Whaley a little better.
One of my favorite things about Where Things Come Back is how real the characters and Lily, Arkansas felt. I have heard you say that some of the characters, especially Cullen and Gabriel, each have pieces of your teenage self, and that Lily is based on your own small town. What was 17-year-old John Corey Whaley like? Could he imagine being a famous writer?
Seventeen-year-old Corey Whaley was pretty cynical and definitely had a lot of issues with his small town. I was funny, though, and I used my humor to survive the boredomâ€”putting on skits in school talent shows with my best friends and taking frequent road trips to Shreveport (an hour away) to see movies and eat at decent restaurants. Could I imagine being a famous writer at 17? I remember wanting it so badly and knowing, somehow, that I’d eventually finish writing a novel and do whatever I could to get it out there. I never expected it all to happen the way it has though, to suddenly have people respecting my work and saying such nice, thoughtful things about it. It’s been too awesome to describe, really.
What advice do you have for teenagers like Cullen, living in small towns, dreaming of escape?
I think the best advice I can give, at the risk of sounding hokey and too clichÃ©, is to just stick it out as best you can and know that it’ll be done soon, that it’s possible to get out there and experience the world that you so badly feel like you’re missing out on. I’ve learned a lot about that this past year, as I’ve been traveling more and promoting the book and talking to all kinds of different people from different backgrounds about growing upâ€”and what I’ve realized, finally, is that it’s much more about who you are than where you are, I think. A lot of those feelings I had, and the ones I think a lot of teenagers have about their hometowns or neighborhoods, are, in a way, self-imposed. I think, as teenagers, it’s almost a necessary step to struggle with where you’re from, and, at least for me, it’s what helped me keep trying to accomplish the things I wanted and needed.
If Cullen and Gabriel both have some of your traits, habits and passions, what were Cabot Searcy and Benton Sage inspired by?
Oh geez. This one’s tough. I think they’re both inspired much more by an idea than by actual people. At a certain point, I knew I wanted to introduce this second narrative thread to the story, something to interrupt Cullen’s story and, somehow (I had no idea how at first) intersect with and complete it. A friend introduced me to the Book of Enoch, which I read and immediately found connections in, connections that surprised me and were just too perfect not to useâ€”angels, monsters (zombies), and faith. So, I started writing about Benton, a young man who struggles with his faith and eventually that led to this other guy, Cabot, who wants to change the world. I remember a guy in a college class one time who, when asked what he wanted to do, told the teacher and class that he “wanted to change the world.” I thought about this guy and whether or not he really thought it possible, if he really would try to change things and what he might do to make that happen. And, also, what does “change the world” really mean, anyway? It’s about perspective, right? So, Cabot Searcy is meant to be a guy who wants to do something great, and is left open to be a victim of his own ambition. Wow. Is that an answer at all? I hope so.
You have said that you used to write down book titles like Cullen, although you never finished a story to go with them. Can you share some of your favorite discarded or unfinished titles?
Sure. I have so many, a lot of which I used in Where Things Come Back, but some of my other favorites off the top of my head, are The Darkshore Diaries, Ephram After Death, The Up and Down Adventures of Bipolar Boy, and A Little Too Much Fog.
As a lover of literary surprises I rarely read jacket flaps, so when I sat down to read Where Things Come Back, I had heard only a short summary about a lost woodpecker and missing boy. Almost immediately I had received a misprint when all of a sudden the story transported me to Africa following a young missionary. I actually flipped back pages, to make sure I hadn’t missed something. But then, slowly and almost imperceptibly the two stories began to intertwine. Weaving these stories together so seamlessly couldn’t have been easy, how did you decide that these two stories fit together?
Well, I think I answered a lot of this above (oops…), but I’ll elaborate. There came a point in Cullen’s narrative, about ten chapters in, when I realized that something was missing from this book. I needed a way to make it more compelling and, ultimately, to try and illuminate some of the biblical references and symbolism that I’d already presented, to make them have a point other than “look what I can do!” So, after reading the Book of Enoch and seeing the connections there and the fact that the angel Gabriel (which happened to be the younger brother’s name in my already-written ten chapters) plays such a major role in this apocryphal text, I sort of just knew what I wanted to do. And then, after introducing Benton, I knew that I needed him only to introduce ideas about faith and to lead to the more important character of Cabotâ€”who proves to, without spoilers, be a consequential element to the plot. I can honestly tell you that I have no idea how it all workedâ€”how these two completely unrelated things seemed to find a convergence in my brain. But man oh man am I happy they did.
I understand you are working on two new YA novels right now. Can you tell us anything about them? What do we have to look forward to?
Sure. But I can’t tell you much because I’m one to change things up on a whim. Haha.
My second novel, tentatively titled The Defenestration of Abbott, should come out sometime in 2013 and concerns a set of twins, a mysterious murder in South Louisiana, and a bit of voodoo. It’s a little darker in tone than Where Things Come Back with a few surprises here and there.
My third novel is about a genius kid who, after a near-death experience, goes on a journey of discovery to encounter different kinds of lives and, hopefully, learn to appreciate the one he has. It’s a lot more light-hearted and comedic than the first two novels and I’m really excited for readers to get a better glimpse of that side of me.