The novel examines the insular life of a little boy who has to grapple with the knowledge that the millions of people who love him have no idea who he his while coming of age as he’s being raised by a tough mom-ager. Wayne is a frequent contributor to other publications (including The New Yorker) and is also the author of the novel Kapitoil. You can learn a lot more about him here.
How did you ensure a level of believability for an 11-year-old kid (aside from marketing speak?) What changes did you make throughout the process to make sure that it was accurate?
In the earliest pages, his voice was a touch too infantile—an overreliance on slang like “fav,” for instance. Instead of focusing on a wholly diminished vocabulary, I decided to make Jonny’s grammar and sentence structures more kidlike; run-on phrasings, consistent (and subtle) syntax errors, as well as specific diction that he returns to.
What were some alternate covers suggested for the book? How did the current one get decided?
The current one is all I saw at first, though my publisher later floated a few alternates. But I was sold from the start on the reflective holographic foil, which is a perfect tongue-in-cheek self-critical design: a novel about the glitzy packaging of art is itself wrapped in a glitzy package.
Similarly, were there other names you considered for Jonny Valentine?
The book’s first germ of inspiration was as a parody of pop-star autobiographies, and in that version (I wrote one chapter, which later became the New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs piece Jonny reads about himself), the protagonist is named Tyler Beats—which would eventually become the megastar whom Jonny attempts to emulate. Once I threw out the parody and started over as a novel, Jonny Valentine came to me early on.
What other research did you do for the book? Did you read any child star biographies?
I read a number of autobiographies—from Drew Barrymore’s and Tatum O’Neal’s—as well as biographies and critical books on Jackie Coogan (the first American child star in movies) to Michael Jackson. And then I read the more superficial pop-star autobiographies I was initially trying to parody, such as Miley Cyrus’s and Justin Bieber’s, along with celebrity gossip publications, both teen- and adult-oriented.
What did you learn along the way about the relationship fans have with their pop idols? Did you hear from any Beliebers (or recovering adults who would have been Beliebers in their day?)
A number of adults reminisced about being crazed fans of David Cassidy and the like. And owing to the confusion and strangeness of the Internet, a few Beliebers started following Jonny’s Twitter account, @TheRealJonny, and some Tweeted at me, asking, for example, if I love chocolate as much as they do and telling me they’re passionate about my music. It’s unclear who is being pranked.
Either from a musical perspective or just because you like them in general, who are some of your favorite teenybopper acts now or from yore?
I confess to liking One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.” If you go back further, I like a lot more, especially from the 1950s—Frankie Lymon, to name one, is as good as it gets.
Have you considered setting any of Jonny’s lyrics to music? I wonder, though, how much music like his starts with a hook and then the lyrics come in as an afterthought.
I recorded a version of his hit song “Guys vs. Girls” and posted it at The Morning News. Fortunately, I also asked Alina Simone, a real singer-songwriter (and novelist), to do her own, superior version as well.
What posters did you have on your wall when you were a kid?
I’ve never been much of an interior decorator, so my room was fairly poster-less, save a New York Mets poster. I didn’t really get into music until I was about 17, when I started listening to, among others, the Clash (which Jonny is exposed to by his opening band), and then I ranged much further afield in college.
What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered during your time at the Grammys?
I went with nominee Hunter Hayes and wrote about it for Rolling Stone, and I was impressed by how deftly he handled the constant scrutiny, particularly the interviews. The red-carpet gauntlet has dozens of TV crews looking for sound bites, and it requires tremendous fortitude and grace to negotiate it well. I couldn’t do it.
What do you listen to while you work?
Music I know well, so that I’m not distracted, but I’ll sometimes use Pandora. A lot of Bob Dylan, historically.
What’s the process like when it comes to publishing humor in the New Yorker? I’m about whether the editing/revision process is similar to nonfiction or fiction or if it’s a whole different ball of wax.
Generally, with publications anywhere, there’s not much editing when it comes to a humor piece, because if it’s not working, it’s simply not working. They might ask me to tighten up a thing or two, but it’s always accepted after the piece has already been written, and if it requires too much revision, it probably means it’s not meant to be.
What does one do with a fellowship?
You just hope someone will quote Young MC to you: “Come sit next to me, you fine fellow.” And it never happens.
How does it feel to be the 341st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Exactly how it feels to be a cast member of the movie “300” and to be George H.W. Bush, whose nickname within the clan is “41.” I feel sorry for whoever is 343, since they’ll be more like W.
Editor’s note: Wayne is actually 340, due to my problems counting. D’oh. Don’t let that take away from the cleverness of his first answer.