For even the most socially attuned writer, pop culture in literary fiction tends to be limited to fleeting references—rock bands or films or Top 40 songs whizzing around their profound characters like stray bullets of shallow desire. It takes a brave, ferociously imaginative writer such as New York-based Teddy Wayne to transform pop—and not just any pop, but Justin Bieber-esque, tween-romance, boy-with-a-copyright-on-his-asymmetrical-bangs-and-signature, child-star-making-machinery pop—into profound material for a novel.
The 32-year-old Wayne has done just that in his harrowing, hilarious second book, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press), in which the narrator is a prepubescent singer and dancer, discovered on YouTube, on a cross-country concert tour and a Telemachus-like quest to locate his missing father. Teen idol Jonny Valentine prays for his first ejaculation and yet has a seasoned MTV executive's knowledge of the industry. Aided by a roving entourage that includes his manager-mother, he's a master manipulator of fame-dodging stalkers, courting the paparazzi, staging his celebrity love life, and reducing his female fans to tears. It's less a coming-of-age story than a price-of-this-age story, where self-promotion is the equivalent of self-preservation.
In The Love Song of Jonny Valentine Wayne manages to negotiate a character so original, so multitextured, and teetering so precariously between innocence and emptiness, the result is a stunning achievement in literary zeitgeist. I sat down with the author to discuss his interest in the Bieberism phenomenon and the difficulties of creating a world seen so often through magazines and mirrors.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: On the character of Jonny, you as a writer have performed a tight-wire walk where Jonny's absolutely brainwashed by the fame industry and yet there are raw currents of genuine pubescent emotion running through him. How hard was that for you to figure out the voice of this character?
TEDDY WAYNE: There are really two separate voices within him. There's the marking/branding executive voice, and then there's the vulnerable innocent voice of a little boy who's still an 11-year-old but has had professionalism drilled into him. The marketing voice I'd say was inspired by this freelance job I had. For two years on and off I substitute wrote for this New York Times business section column. Each week I'd interview someone in the media, advertising, marketing world who spoke exactly like Jonny Valentine does in his most egregious moments about third-quarter revenue developments, building their brand, and so on. They would unironically speak this way, without realizing how much they sounded like their jobs. It seemed representative to me of a certain type of speech or mentality that we've adopted in the past 15 years—people speaking about building their own personal brands. It's tied into our entrepreneurial era of narcissism and people posting Facebook photos of their sandwiches on Instagram, recreating what it might be like to be a celebrity and have the actual paparazzi photographing your lunch.
BOLLEN: In Jonny's case, there's actually an audience that wants to consume him. And he seems to fully comprehend the business of it.
WAYNE: He does, to a terrifying degree. But I think that most successful artists—not always, but a lot of them, in any field—have business savvy as well and have some sense of marketing acumen. I think the key is to be good enough at it that it doesn't overwhelm your aesthetic interests, but have just enough that you make smart decisions.
BOLLEN: There's a similar obsession with the ins and outs of professionalism in your first novel, Kapitoil (2010). Are the mechanics of work a way for you to fill out characters, or is capitalism a subject that you find yourself increasingly interested in?
WAYNE: I think both. I enjoy writing about the field of work. I think it's an underwritten topic in American fiction. We spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our loved ones, and yet we don't have that many novels on the subject. We have far more novels about families bickering at Thanksgiving and not enough about the day before Thanksgiving at the office. If we lived in, say, Romania, maybe a workplace job might not be as important to the cultural discussion. But we live in America, where work is crucially important and capitalism drives everything we do.
BOLLEN: Was there any trepidation about putting a Justin Bieber-esque character into literary fiction, that perhaps it would be too pop-culture to have an impact beyond what we are already forced to read on websites and in the newspaper about celebrities every day?
WAYNE: You don't want a mimetic description of what Bieber's actual life is like. I treated it seriously. I knew some humor would come out anyway, but the idea was not to write a satirical novel about the music industry, but to write a very realistic fishbowl view of what it's like to be an 11-year-old pop star in contemporary America. To write an over-the-top satire is shooting fish in a barrel. What happened was that I was working on another novel, after Kapitoil came out. I was going nowhere. I was writing slowly. I wasn't really enjoying it much, and one morning a friend whom I often collaborate with on humor pieces emailed me to say "Do you have ideas for a humor book you could work on? Something short you could crank out?" And I was so desperate to get away from that other novel, I wrote off the top of my head, "How about parodying those child-star fake autobiographies that are mostly photographs with a sentence or two per page? How about I take a Bieber-style character and write from his perspective." My friend liked the idea, we got interested in it, and an hour later, I realized, "What if I wrote this as a novel and treated it with the utmost seriousness?" I started writing it that morning and wrote about 3,000 words that afternoon, which is much more than I was doing on the other book, and more than I do in general. I got into the character's voice right away. Of course I had to tweak it, but I immediately had a sense of how he might speak and how to make it interesting beyond an 11-year-old perspective. And I did not want to do the thing that everyone does for child narrators, which is make them verbal prodigies in every way and speak like creative writing professors. So I found this hybrid voice of half child, half verbal prodigy in one very specific niche area, but not in everything. So he's emotionally naïve, for the most part, but he's still a little bit wiser than his years. He's savvier about business than most adults are.
BOLLEN: I have spent the last two years actively avoiding information about Justin Bieber. Now I feel a strange sympathy for him.
WAYNE: You hear about the castration murder plot?
BOLLEN: Yeah, which has a parallel in the male stalker that shows up to one of Jonny Valentine's outdoor concerts.
WAYNE: There've been a bunch of weird parallels since I wrote it. He's broken up with Selena Gomez.
BOLLEN: I wonder if he'll read it. In some way, the book is a victory for him.
WAYNE: [laughs] Let's see if he pays attention.
BOLLEN: What research did you do when you went about creating the environment and backstory of Jonny?
WAYNE: I read Justin Bieber's autobiography, which was mostly pictures, and a number of child-star memoirs and biographies. I paid closer attention to celebrity gossip and news. When you're the 30something man reading Tiger Beat at Barnes & Noble, it looks very conspicuous. But as I started following Bieber more attentively, I realized he's fairly cagey. He doesn't reveal himself much.
BOLLEN: But even with all of the pop cultural knowledge that we have stored in our heads just from daily exposure, there must have been moments while writing when you said, "Oh, crap, what does a tour bus look like from the interior?" Or "what exactly do they serve backstage?"
WAYNE: It's funny that you mention the bus. I specifically researched that on the Internet and looked up, "What do musicians' touring buses look like?" I looked at photographs and descriptions and modeled it after that. That's an example of something I wouldn't know on my own. I had an idea of what it might look like, but the problem with that is that I'm taking my cues from cinematic or television depictions of stardom. I didn't want to write a Behind The Music, look-at-this-kid's-life. There are some elements of that, but I didn't want to fall into this retread of, "Here's the scene where the band breaks up because of a fight, and they destroy the hotel room." In every biopic about a musician, you know that scene is coming. So, I was actually restricting my research in certain ways, because I didn't want to know too much about... certain areas that I felt like I would just parrot as stock scenes that we're all led to expect.
BOLLEN: Exactly, so in a sense you are fighting your own associations as you are writing.
WAYNE: With fiction, you always want to go against type in some way, no matter what. Like the groupie scene, for instance. He has his bodyguard retrieve this groupie from after a concert, and in every movie, I imagine that scene is some hot girl who comes backstage. In fact, he gets a fairly unattractive older girl to come back, and it's a disaster sexually. He's not old enough to go through with any kind of real sexual interaction.
BOLLEN: Did you ever attend a Justin Bieber concert?
WAYNE: I haven't, no. I thought about it, but I watched his documentary Never Say Never, and I watched a lot of footage online. So, I got a sense of it.
BOLLEN: I don't mean to suggest the entire novel is beholden to Bieber. To be honest, I can't name a Bieber song.
WAYNE: I think "Baby" is his biggest hit. I barely knew before I started this. The new one, "Boyfriend," is this older sort of Timberlake-y song.
BOLLEN: I liked how you parodied different media writing styles throughout the novel. There's the magazine puff piece, with that painful last sentence of every first paragraph that always has to list three dissimilar, fun topics that will be discussed.
WAYNE: [laughs] Yeah, "We sat down with Teddy Wayne to discuss..."
BOLLEN: "Pickles, capitalism, and how he's never been to a Justin Bieber concert..." And then you do a Gawker parody. And an intellectual-wit "Shouts & Murmurs" from The New Yorker.
WAYNE: If I were just targeting E! Television and Tiger Beat, it'd be a little too easy. The cultural elite is no better at times. Or as Jonny says, they gossip as much about celebrities, except their celebrities are respected artists and politicians. People talk about Obama in the same way 12-year-olds talk about Bieber, and speculate about what he and Michelle are like behind closed doors the same way those 12-year-olds wonder what Justin and Selena are like. And I parodied some publications I actually write for, including a "Shouts & Murmurs" piece, which was originally for that parody book I was going to do. I really wanted it in the book, so I found a way to wedge it in. Fortunately, the book designer could make it look exactly like a New Yorker article.
BOLLEN: I've been trying to think of other literary books that tackle fame directly. There's Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street. And Glamorama.
WAYNE: I didn't read Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, but that might be another one. For a fleeting moment, Joyce Carol Oates decided to follow me on Twitter. For one minute.
BOLLEN: But then she thought better of it?
WAYNE: Someone I know is a professor at Princeton, and they retweeted something about me, and she follows only like five or six people, including him. She must have accidentally clicked on me and then followed me. So, I got an email that said "Joyce Carol Oates is following you," and I felt so flattered, and then I went and it was no longer there. An accidental follow by Joyce Carol Oates.
BOLLEN: [laughs] So rude. But maybe we could jump away from the fame books. Maybe Jonny Valentine falls in an entirely different sub-genre. Hear me out. I was thinking while I was reading it about Huckleberry Finn, where Jonny's Huck, the bodyguard is Jim, the mother is Huck's father, Michael, his old school friend is Tom Sawyer, the tour van is the raft, and the tour itself is the river.
WAYNE: Jonny is from St. Louis, near Missouri. The first sentence of the novel, which I've revised since, was originally supposed to be his autobiography, and it originally began, in the first draft, with "If you"—which is the beginning of both Huckleberry Finn and Catcher In The Rye. So, I was trying to echo back to that, but it wasn't working those first few sentences. I was trying too hard, and I got rid of the autobiography element. I'm not going to compare myself to those writers, but I was trying to write in the vein of a classic coming-of-age American tale, with this postmodern, Twitter-fied spin.
BOLLEN: In the plotting of the novel, did you feel that need for Jonny to find his missing father was an essential pathway to the kid behind the poster-version?
WAYNE: Without that, I was afraid it would just be a greatest hits collection. I wanted to give him a strong emotional core of vulnerability and missing love. He's got an at times loving, at times controlling, relationship with his mother.
BOLLEN: I found the mother to be perhaps the most intriguing character in the book. She's not just the Dina Lohan of our nightmares?
WAYNE: I didn't base it on her. There are many mothers like that out there. I don't know enough about her to base it off her. But my somewhat unspoken rule was, every time she does something horrendous, show her as tender and loving soon after, so the reader doesn't feel like she's one-sided. Jonny's search for his father, I think, reflects what a lot of people who seek out fame are looking for, which is some kind of love they're not getting in their personal lives. If you're not having that kind of intimate relationship with those around you, at least you have millions of strangers who worship you. It's not an original idea, but it does seem to be what motivates a lot of people. He's engulfed in the bubble of celebrity, which I think celebrities have to have in a way—you can't just walk down the street if you're George Clooney. His is the bubble of child celebrity, and the additional bubble of an overprotected child, whose mother is controlling every aspect of his life.
BOLLEN: I work near the Mercer Hotel. And it amazes me how paparazzi wait outside for celebrities, but soon they are shooting, crowding around a person, and then tourists passing in the street start taking pictures. They can't see past the professional to who is being shot but they keep shooting too, just because they want a picture of someone, anyone, famous.
WAYNE: Like DeLillo's most photographed barn in America.
BOLLEN: Exactly. I'm guilty to a lesser extent. I'll get starstruck if I see a tennis player. Or sometimes an old writer.
WAYNE: When I was 14 or 15, I was with my family walking down the street in Manhattan, and of all people, my mom said, "There's Kiki Vandeweghe," who was at the time The Knicks' forward. He was also like 6'10, probably, so he stands out, but somehow the young kids who were all Knicks fans didn't recognize him but my mother did. But in general, you don't end up on a plane sitting next to Brad Pitt. If you're lucky you end up on a plane sitting next to the father from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It wouldn't be Will Smith; it would be the father.
BOLLEN: I bet that conversation is much more fun with the father anyway.
WAYNE: Yeah, because they're more like you. This is a normal human being who has some fame, whereas the actual A-list celebrities are these deified gods who don't seem human anymore. They're not leading human lives.
BOLLEN: I thought your lyrics for Jonny Valentine's song "Boys Vs. Girls" were actually very catchy. How did you write that?
WAYNE: I strummed the guitar a little bit while I wrote it. I can play chords and do a little fingerpicking, and I actually recorded an acoustic version. My singing's not equal to my guitar playing, but I think we did send it out to music critics—which might have backfired.
BOLLEN: I imagine the way you did it sounds more like a folk song.
WAYNE: The idea was similar to when you hear indie-rock groups doing covers of Britney Spears. There's a little tongue-in-cheek version of "Baby One More Time." So nothing's come of it yet. Again I wrote the lyrics not to be satirical, but to write lyrics that could sound like real pop lyrics.
BOLLEN: I wonder if Bieber fans will pick up this book as their Book of Revelations?
WAYNE: I don't know. With all my writing, I write what I want to write. I write the books I want to read. I'm interested in seeing what happens with this book in the marketplace, it will be like an experiment playing itself out in real time, but if you start working towards a marketplace, you become a Jonny Valentine. And it shows. I think to write something attempting to win over commercial support will fail in every degree. I read that New Yorker profile last year about Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men. He's a major proponent of the classic, traditional sitcom. Which is very different from shows like 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I would imagine if writers like Tina Fey or Larry David tried to write a version of Two and a Half Men, it would be bad. To write it well, you actually have to believe in it and think what you're doing is good art. I think that Chuck Lorre wholeheartedly believes that he's doing the pinnacle of TV. If you ever sell out, try to sell out, or even let that affect your thinking, it's very apparent, and you'll do a second-rate job of what's already second-rate work.
BOLLEN: I'm a big proponent of genre writing. I can't stand this literary mentality to see mystery books or sci-fi or spy or whatever as inferior simply because it builds suspense or follows a plot. Anything that builds suspense seems to be accused of not appreciating the human condition.
WAYNE: For sure. It's really hard to write plot. If we're talking about genre, literary fiction is a genre, too. It should be tagged as such. Most literary writers are not good with plot, because you get into writing not because you have great ideas for complicated storyline, but because you're someone who's a keen observer of the small moments and details of life, and the emotional textures that change throughout your life. So most of us, including myself I think, are less proficient at building a kind of twisty, yet still plausible narrative that something like Gone Girl performs beautifully. That's difficult to do. It's the same with young-adult writing. That's tough. No 12-year-old is willing to overlook a sluggish storyline because of the brilliant intellectual insights into the way we live now. Occasionally readers get hoodwinked by the emperor's new clothes, and think that something is wonderful when it's really just pretentious and empty. To write something that a 12- or 13-year-old finds unputdownable, that means you're doing everything right as a writer.
THE LOVE SONG OF JONNY VALENTINE IS OUT TODAY.