Catching Up With David Levithan and John Green
By Gregory Miller
Once you realized you were both writing about gay characters, how conscious were you that this was becoming a 'gay novel'?
DL: I think once I saw Tiny Cooper in his chapter, I was like 'Yep, this is going to be a hugely homosexual novel.' Pun intended. That was totally great. I think in the larger sense, it's about searching for identity and searching for the sort of things that names imply, and so the persona that you throw under your own name or other people's names. I think that really fit in with issues of sexuality and also issues of what love is, and how you can love your straight friend just like you can love a boyfriend -- there's a different dynamic, but it's still just as much love. I think we were both excited when we read our first chapters to each other that clearly we were on the same page about those things. I wasn't worried that the gay part would overwhelm everything else because for my Will, where he is in his life is having a very clean conscience. He's OK with being gay, he's totally OK with his sexuality. Clearly he's having trouble with his identity but that's totally different than his sexuality. So I very consciously put him in a place where it wasn't him thinking he was straight, then coming to the realization he likes boys and then coming out -- that story's been told so many times. I really wanted him to be taking it from a different angle. To add Tiny to the equation -- someone who has his moments of vulnerability -- but is for the most part, just really happy with who he is. Life is a musical, and he's the central character in it, and I know plenty of people like that. So I thought that would be a nice counterpoint.
One of you picked the first name and one of you picked the last name for Will Grayson. Who picked which?
JG: I picked the last name. I picked Grayson. Whenever I hear the name Grayson I think 'grace in.' That phrase has always fascinated me, like I don't know if it's the beginning of the phrase or the end of one. Is it grace in adversity? Or is it let the grace in? That phrase has always stuck with me and I thought it would be cool to explore that in my story.
David, why did you choose the name 'Will'?
DL: I don't have any friends named Will, so I wouldn't get in trouble [laughs]. But mostly because I just really liked it as a noun. It was such a solid noun, like the last will and testaments, like will -- there's some determination here. But it is also such a questioning word, like 'Will you still help me tomorrow?' 'Will I or won't I?' I liked that duality of it.
Had you hated the name the other chose, do you think you would have told him or just gone with it?
DL: Truth be told, if it had been really bad we probably would have had a conversation about it. But there again, it was just the sort of kismet that it just sort of worked. But yeah if he had been like 'Oh, the last name is Finkelstein,' I might have been like, 'Really? Really? It's going to be Finkelstein?' But I think we both chose names that would be able to encompass all sorts of characters, rather than just specifically.
Did you intentionally not indicate who wrote which chapters?
DL: It's interesting. I think we just didn't think about it. It wasn't until the advance reader copy came out that it was like 'Oh, it doesn't say at any point who it was.' And I liked the ambiguity. I kind of like that people really don't know. If anything, people think that because of Tiny Cooper's presence, they sort of half-think that I wrote the first chapter and they half-think John did. And then they get to my chapter, and they don't know which of us wrote that chapter because it's so different from what we usually do. So I kind of like that. My parents read it, and they weren't sure, which was a high compliment.
It's believed this is the first gay-themed young adult novel to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. What does that mean to you?
JG: Oh, it means a lot. I'm not going to lie. It means a lot to me. I think in the end it says a lot more about where American teenagers are than it says about our novel. What it means to me is just to have been a part of showing the book publishing companies in general that you can write a book about gay characters and it can be commercial and successful -- that's hugely important.
DL: I was about to be Joe Biden and say 'It's fucking fantastic!' I guess it's fantastic! It's amazing. It's really astonishing. I love the fact that it was actually John who realized that and was so excited about it, and I was like, yeah, that's true. And again, I think it's great because it's being bought by everybody. It's not being pigeonholed. John has so many of these fans, and I have so many of these fans -- although mine have certainly proven to be open to gay themes -- but I think really that everybody's just embraced the book. They love Tiny Cooper and they love the Wills, whereas 10 years ago it would have been a huge issue, a lot of people would have come out of the woodwork to be like, 'What is this book? What agenda is it promoting?' Etc., etc. I think probably the most astonishing thing about it being number 3 on the bestseller list is that it did so without an iota of controversy. The characters can be who they are and people are cool with that.
There's a lot of gay literature out there, but it's typically not commercial. Why do you think that is?
JG: I think some of it is marketing. I think some of it is publishers are scared to put a lot of money behind books with gay characters because they don't seem as commercial, and that becomes a bit of a vicious circle. I think some of it is that gay bookstores -- there are fewer independent gay bookstores than there were 10 years ago. And I think some of it is that, some authors, at times, can be reluctant to put gay characters in a novel, but to put gay characters at the center of their novels.
An adult shop in Chicago, Frenchy's, plays a big part in the novel, and it's actually a real place. Does that place hold any significance for you? Are you a frequent visitor?
JG: [Laughs] I picked where [the novel's two Wills] were going to meet. It holds significance for me in the sense that at the time it was around the corner from where I worked. I walked past it every day on my way home. I wanted to kind of throw a curve ball. There's lots of places you might meet someone who has your name -- like Starbucks when they say 'This latte is for John Green' or whatever. But it seemed like we were going to have a hell of a time writing a story about two guys having the same name meeting at an adult bookstore. So I guess I wanted to give us that challenge. But I don't know. We went to Frenchy's after the book came out when we were on the book tour in Chicago, and I really wanted to run in there and give them a copy of the book. But I totally lost my courage.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson is available in bookstores now.