One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with David Levithan
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I’m pretty sure the first book I read that was written by David Levithan was Boy Meets Boy, though it might have been The Realm of Possibility since I was, as is often the case, late to the party. I say “written by” because of course I’d been reading books published and edited by him for years. (He’s the founding editor of Scholastic’s PUSH imprint, and edits and publishes authors like Suzanne Collins, Maggie Stiefvater, Garth Nix, Alice Hoffman, M. T. Anderson, and Cecil Castellucci.) I know I quickly rounded up at least four or five “written by” novels as soon as I finished Boy Meets Boy and spent a wonderful couple of weeks catching up, and and afterwards I made sure that I kept up with each new book that came out, which, honestly, is no small feat when you’re talking about David Levithan. I mean, in the last year (almost to the day) he’s given us Every Day, which comes out in paperback on September 10th, and its digital-only companion, Six Earlier Days; Invisibility, a collaboration with Andrea Cremer; and Two Boys Kissing (out this very week) about which David says, “In honor of its release, and tying very much to its themes, I will be giving two dollars for each copy sold in the first three weeks to The Trevor Project, an amazing organization that supports queer youth. So buy early and buy often – and help me support an amazing cause.”
Thank you, David, for taking the time to talk with me about your teen years, your work as an editor, and your fantastic books.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Bookish, happy, well adjusted. Not a large leap from my current self.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I knew words would be involved in some way, but had to figure out which way. (In the end, I feel like I chose them all, or at least a few variations.) If you’d asked me in high school, I probably would have guessed I would have become a journalist or an editor. I wouldn’t have been surprised at being a novelist… but I definitely would have been impressed that I’d managed to finish something.
What were your high school years like?
I was at Millburn High School in Millburn, NJ, and I liked it. There was a lot of pressure to get into a good college, but at some point I came to peace with the fact that I was never going to be in the top ten in my class (amusingly, I ended up at #11), so I didn’t devote my life to my homework. I did, however, devote much of my life to my friends – for most of high school, it was a core group of about seven girls and me, and then senior year it was my two closest best friends (who were sophomores) – we called ourselves Siberia, which is really all you need to know. Only in this case, Siberia was located very close to the mall, and everyone else. Oh, and I was reading all the time. I wrote authors’ names on my jeans. I was that cool.
What were some of your passions during that time?
Among the authors whose names were on my jeans: Margaret Atwood, Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, Philip Roth, John Irving, Cynthia Voigt, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Fay Weldon… And music! So many mix tapes. Erasure and Depeche Mode from Lynda. Everything But the Girl and The Smiths from Cary. Joni Mitchell and Indigo Girls from Jen. And so on.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
I think the fact that I didn’t have a difficult teen experience or challenge certainly shaped the adult I became. I owe my parents everything and then some. I won the parent lottery, no question. And then I went and won the friend lottery.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
It was really thrilling to have my first book published. But, truth be told, the first time one of my stories was accepted to the high school literary magazine was pretty thrilling, too. All variations of the same theme. But honestly? It’s all those moments with my friends. Dancing in parks or goofing around at a multiplex or crowding into someone’s house for a deadline meeting for the newspaper – those fuel my writing more than anything academic.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
This is an author questionnaire, right? Not a psych exam? Just checking. Since I only have limited space here, I will defer to the letter I wrote to my thirteen-year-old self in Sarah Moon and James Lecesne’s awesome anthology The Letter Q. That will answer this question.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
Well, were I a teen now, I would have clued into the whole gay thing much, much sooner. But the truth is that I can’t even regret that. I wasn’t closeted, just astonishingly oblivious. And in the meantime, I had a pretty good time.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
The frequency with which I got to see my friends. And passing notes. I loved to pass notes.
Every Day I Write the Book
As a publisher and the editorial director at Scholastic you’ve worked as an editor with a wide variety of authors, and have published/edited a large number of popular and acclaimed books; as an author, you’ve written a number of critically-acclaimed bestsellers. How does your work as an editor inform or influence your work as an author? Do you think being a writer yourself changes how your authors relate to you as an editor? Does being an editor change the way you work with an editor on your own books?
My work as an editor exposes me to a lot of writers and writing that I never would have had a chance to read otherwise, and that certainly inspires me as a writer. And my work as a publisher certainly gives me a context for my book’s existence that not many writers have. Also, my apprenticeship as an editor offered many lessons about writing – how to plot, for example. But for all that, I am still entirely dependent on my editor to see my own work through the readers’ eyes. I am not capable of that. Editing yourself is like a doctor performing surgery on himself or herself – not advisable.
As for how my authors relate to me – you would have to ask them. Certainly, it feels like we speak the same language – but that’s true with editors who aren’t authors, too.
You’ve said “I write because I am in love with life. Or I write because I want to be in love with life. I think it’s always one of the two,” and in the same piece you explained that you often write “conventional love stories…because loving another person is a manifestation of loving life, or being in love with life.” In your essay “A Similar Kind of Love Song,” you also write that some of your most interesting correspondence comes from surprised readers who found themselves deeply invested in love stories that didn’t reflect their own orientation or gender. “Love is love, more than one reader wrote…And I thought, yes, that’s it exactly.” It sounds like you’re saying that creating something–whether you’re creating a book or a relationship or a life–is an act of love. Is that a fair interpretation? Could you talk a little bit about that theme, “love is love,” and how it’s reflected in your work?
I’m not sure I’d say that writing is always an act of love, but certainly it can be fueled by love, insofar as so many other emotions (joy, alarm, fear, astonishment) are also fueled by some form of love. I would find it very, very hard to write about something I didn’t care about, or characters I didn’t care about. I’m not that kind of novelist, nor, truth be told, do I particularly want to be.
As for love is love and how it’s reflected in my work – I don’t want it to sound like I believe all loves are the same. I think every love brings its own complications and concerns, because it intersects with so many other pieces of who we are, and where we are. But the core longings resist any demographic pigeonhole.
You’ve explored a really impressive number of different formats including novels, short stories, and novels in verse, and you’ve also written for and edited anthologies, collaborated with a wide variety of authors, and drawn inspiration from photographs, classic literature, and dictionary entries. You’ve written realistic contemporary fiction, a psychological thriller, speculative fiction, and romance. Where do you go next?
The amazing thing about writing YA right now is that all the doors are open, and none of the possibilities have been crossed out. I’d love to write a mystery. I’d love to write middle-grade. I’ll certainly write another book about adults. And I refuse to leave this earth before I write a book with Libba Bray. But I never know where I’m going to be, storywise, until I am there. That’s part of the fun of it for me.
Your next book, Two Boys Kissing (August 2013), is described as “a perfect thematic bookend to…Boy Meets Boy, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2013” and you’ve also described your 2008 novel Wide Awake, which begins with the election of the first gay Jewish president, as being a “sequel in spirit” to Boy Meets Boy. The starred Publisher’s Weekly review of Two Boys Kissing calls the book a “landmark achievement” and says “it’s a different world for teenagers coming of age and coming out now, compared to when…Boy Meets Boy was published 10 years ago.” Could you talk a little about the connections between these three books, about the societal changes they reflect, and about where “the canon of gay literature,” as PW calls it, goes from here?
If Boy Meets Boy is about creating an ideal town (situated next to a less than ideal town), then Wide Awake was about creating an ideal America. Some books were made to reflect reality, but those books are more about creating reality, and showing where it can go. The incredible gratifying and sometimes outright extraordinary thing is that many of the things that I wrote as fantasy ten years ago are reality now, and we are closer to that ideal town and that ideal American that I would’ve thought. Two Boys Kissing is about that shift, for sure, but it’s also about the price that was paid for it, and is about the gay generation that came before mine (which was marked so devastatingly by AIDS) looking at the generation that came after mine (which is defined, at least right now, by the Internet and the possibilities, both good and bad, it opens). As for the canon – I feel as things keep changing so fast, mostly for the better but not always, literature has to keep pace, and has to capture all of these moments of change so we don’t forget them once we have changed even farther. I wrote Love is the Higher Law, which takes place in New York on 9/11 and in the immediate space after, and even though I was writing it within a decade of the events, it was already historical fiction. I think writing about gay lives now is like that. Not that things get banished easily to history, but that the here and now moves too fast to be photographed easily. We novelists must try to pin down the blur, and show what’s happening right now both for the right now, and for whatever comes next.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Elizabeth Knox: Every Day is an extraordinarily empathic and inclusive book. Did your plan for who A might inhabit evolve as you got to know his character better? It is actually a kind of chicken and egg question.
There was no plan! Or, I guess, the plan was not to have a plan. A wakes up every day in a different life. And because of that, I didn’t want to know whose body A was waking up into until A did, which meant that I was having to figure that out at every chapter break. I think the novel works because of that – there isn’t foreshadowing because I myself had no idea what was coming next.
David has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Charles de Lint. Watch for an interview with him in September.
David Levithan is a children’s book editor in New York City, and the author of several books for young adults, including the New York Times bestseller, Every Day, and the most recent Two Boys Kissing (2013). He is also the author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (co-authored with Rachel Cohn); Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-authored with John Green); and Every You, Every Me (with photographs from Jonathan Farmer). He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. You can find him at his website or on Twitter or visit him on Facebook.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading the Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6) and A.S. King’s amazing Reality Boy