Catching Up With David Levithan and John Green
By Gregory Miller
When New York Times bestselling authors John Green and David Levithan decided to write a young adult novel, switching off writing duties for each chapter, they had no idea it would become so gay-centric. They also had no idea it would become the first gay-centric book to make the New York Times children's bestseller list. Will Grayson, Will Grayson follows two boys -- one gay, one straight -- who live in two different worlds, sharing only one thing: the exact same name. We caught up with the two authors to chat about the inspiration behind the book, where they came up with their characters, and what it means to make gay literary history.
Out: How did you come up with the idea for the novel in the first place?
David Levithan: It all started back in college. At Brown there was a guy named David Levinthal, whose name was of course, perilously similar to mine, but not identical. And he was, and still is, an amazing dancer. He now dances with the Mark Morris Dance Group. And so we would always get mistaken for each other. People would come up to me and say things that ended up being profoundly insulting like, 'Oh wow, you seem so clumsy and oafish, but last night I saw you on stage and you were beautiful!' And I'd have to be like, 'Yeah, that wasn't me. Sorry.' And then the week before I graduated, I just called him up and was like, 'I have to meet you. I've been getting your mail. I've been getting your phone calls. I've been getting your compliments.' And it was likewise with him. And so we met up, and we actually became best friends. So I've always been really fascinated with the notion of having the same or similar name, primarily because of that. So when thinking about different collaborations I could do, I thought it'd be really fun to write a book about two guys who had the same name but from two totally different perspectives. So that's sort of where it came from. And John, I'd been a fan and I'd read an advance reader's copy of his first book, Looking for Alaska, and I really loved it. So I just emailed him out of the blue and said 'Hey! I'm a fan.' And we just became friends. Not that shortly thereafter, we were talking and I said 'I have this idea. What do you think?' And he was all for it. The ironic sort of punch line is I went back to Dave Levinthal and told him we'd written this book and it was inspired by that and he just laughed and I asked him why. And he said, 'You remember the name of my college roommate?' And I was like 'Oh, God.' And of course, his college roommate was named John Green.
John, what made you decide to do the project?
John Green: Well, I mostly wanted to work with David. I thought very highly of him as a writer, and he respects me as well, I guess. Once he sort of pitched me the idea, I immediately wanted to write about that friendship between a straight guy and a gay guy because that's something that really interested me.
Why did you guys decide to write it in alternating chapters? Was that David's plan originally?
JG: That came in conversation. We decided that we wanted to write a book that was like an 'X,' where these two characters would start far apart and then they would meet in the middle of the book, and their lives would sort of twist around and then they would go in opposite directions. That appealed to both of us because David and I both have a real fascination with structure in a novel and that seemed like a good one for the sort of story we were thinking about writing. And I think we alternated chapters because I didn't want to fight with him [laughs]. I figured that he would do a good job writing his chapters, and I would hopefully do a good job writing my chapters. It sort of allowed us to have very different voices.
Was there any point where to the other you were like, 'Oh my God, that's so stupid?'
DL: I was totally thrilled with what he was writing. By some amazing kismet, it just went really well. I mean, he read his first chapter, and I just thought it was amazing. The minute he mentioned Tiny Cooper, I knew he was going to steal the whole book. That was a given. It was like, 'Alright, I'm going to have to wait. But eventually that character will come into my story too.' So I was kind of waiting for the cross to happen so Tiny Cooper could come into my Will's life as well. So at no point did we read chapters to each other and go, 'Oh, no. What did you just do?'
Is this something you'd do again?
JG: Yeah, yeah. David always jokes that since the book took five years that we'll start in another five years and then we'll be finished with the next one then.
Did you go into this knowing that you would both write about gay characters?
JG: No, I had no idea what David's Will was going to be like. I was relieved in a way when his Will was gay, in a way, because that gave Tiny a different opportunity, I guess. But I just wanted to write Tiny Cooper. I just wanted to write about this brash, out, really lovable, gigantic guy.
Tiny plays football but he also writes a musical about himself. So he kind of breaks stereotypes but also plays into them. Do you think he's a positive image?
JG: My hope is that he's a positive image by ignoring stereotypes or just being apathetic to them. The fact is there are a lot of gay men who like Liza Minnelli. That doesn't mean that if you like Liza Minnelli and you're gay, you're a stereotype. Or the other way. Madonna -- who David makes fun of in his chapters -- I happen to think is completely fabulous. I don't think that endangers my status as straight in anyway.
You created a healthy dynamic between a gay and straight teenage boy, and that's not something we usually see. Why did you decide to include that?
JG: Well, I don't know why we don't see more books with male friends, one of whom is straight and one of whom is gay. And I want to see more stories like that because I think that's an important story for young men today. I think that there are a lot of straight young men who have best friends who are gay, and a lot of gay guys who have best friends who are straight. I think the reason we don't see that very much, to be honest, is because love gets so sexualized in our world. We start to feel like there is no love outside of romantic love. There are lots of wonderful love stories that have nothing to do with sex or romance, and I guess I wanted to write one of those.
David, your Will Grayson is very angsty. Do you think he's a good representation of gay youth?
DL: I think he's not meant to be any type of representation. He's just one kid. Luckily, I think we've gotten to the point in teen literature where you don't have to make your gay character an 'every gay character.' He's certainly one kind of gay kid, and I think he has interesting intersection of issues. I think he's definitely as much about battling with his depression as he is about being gay as he is about living in this unstable family. I really wanted him to be very specific. I think when I first started writing gay characters, I was very conscious of there having to be somebody for everybody, some sort of identification so the gay kids could be like 'Oh, that could be me.' Whereas now, I think we've gotten to the point where there's enough representations out there, that you can go specific. Certainly some kids are going to totally identify with my Will, and some will identify with John's, and some will identify with neither, but I don't think the identification will come solely on the basis of sexuality.