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Catching Up With David Levithan and John Green

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 childrens 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 Id have to be like, Yeah, that wasnt me. Sorry. And then the week before I graduated, I just called him up and was like, I have to meet you. Ive been getting your mail. Ive been getting your phone calls. Ive been getting your compliments. And it was likewise with him. And so we met up, and we actually became best friends. So Ive 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 itd be really fun to write a book about two guys who had the same name but from two totally different perspectives. So thats sort of where it came from. And John, Id been a fan and Id read an advance readers 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! Im 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 wed 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 thats something that really interested me. Why did you guys decide to write it in alternating chapters? Was that Davids 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 didnt 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, thats 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, Im 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 Wills 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 youd do again? JG: Yeah, yeah. David always jokes that since the book took five years that well start in another five years and then well 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 Davids 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 hes a positive image? JG: My hope is that hes 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 doesnt mean that if you like Liza Minnelli and youre gay, youre a stereotype. Or the other way. Madonna -- who David makes fun of in his chapters -- I happen to think is completely fabulous. I dont think that endangers my status as straight in anyway. You created a healthy dynamic between a gay and straight teenage boy, and thats not something we usually see. Why did you decide to include that? JG: Well, I dont know why we dont 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 thats 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 dont 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 hes a good representation of gay youth? DL: I think hes not meant to be any type of representation. Hes just one kid. Luckily, I think weve gotten to the point in teen literature where you dont have to make your gay character an every gay character. Hes certainly one kind of gay kid, and I think he has interesting intersection of issues. I think hes 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 weve gotten to the point where theres 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 Johns, and some will identify with neither, but I dont think the identification will come solely on the basis of sexuality. 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, its 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 peoples 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 -- theres a different dynamic, but its 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 wasnt 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. Hes OK with being gay, hes totally OK with his sexuality. Clearly hes having trouble with his identity but thats totally different than his sexuality. So I very consciously put him in a place where it wasnt him thinking he was straight, then coming to the realization he likes boys and then coming out -- that storys 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 hes 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 dont know if its 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 dont have any friends named Will, so I wouldnt 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 -- theres some determination here. But it is also such a questioning word, like Will you still help me tomorrow? Will I or wont 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? Its 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: Its interesting. I think we just didnt think about it. It wasnt until the advance reader copy came out that it was like Oh, it doesnt say at any point who it was. And I liked the ambiguity. I kind of like that people really dont know. If anything, people think that because of Tiny Coopers 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 dont know which of us wrote that chapter because its so different from what we usually do. So I kind of like that. My parents read it, and they werent sure, which was a high compliment. Its 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. Im 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 -- thats hugely important. DL: I was about to be Joe Biden and say Its fucking fantastic! I guess its fantastic! Its amazing. Its 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, thats true. And again, I think its great because its being bought by everybody. Its 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 everybodys 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. Theres a lot of gay literature out there, but its 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 dont 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, Frenchys, plays a big part in the novel, and its actually a real place. Does that place hold any significance for you? Are you a frequent visitor? JG: [Laughs] I picked where [the novels 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. Theres 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 dont know. We went to Frenchys 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.Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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