Free Press Fiction: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne

Free Press Fiction
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On sale February 5, 2013

Teddy Wayne is the author of Kapitoil, for which he was the winner of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award and a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. A graduate of Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis and the recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, he lives in New York.

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A Conversation with Teddy Wayne

Reviewers have compared you to authors such as Joseph O’Neill and Jonathan Dee, but who would you say your main influences are? Did you have any particular authors or novels in mind as you wrote The Love Song of Jonny Valentine?

Though I started working on this novel shortly before I read it, Emma Donoghue’s Room was helpful both in its depiction of an intensely claustrophobic mother-son relationship and for its skewed child-narrator voice. I’ve enjoyed novels about music or the music industry—namely Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad—but set out to write a book about a musical genre that’s rarely touched upon in “serious” literature: highly mainstream pop. My general influences are writers who attempt to bury social critiques inside emotionally engaging portraits of interiority; it’s a tricky intersection.

Jonny’s voice captivates readers from the first paragraph—the confident marketing lingo juxtaposed against his constant self-doubt. Did his voice come naturally for you? Or was it something you had to work at and research?

For two years, on and off, I wrote a short media and marketing business column for The New York Times. Nearly each week, I would interview someone who worked in corporate marketing or advertising, and invariably they spoke as you might expect a caricature in those fields to speak, tossing around jargon like “building our brand” and “the digital space” and so on. I’ve always been fascinated by this vernacular, and my first novel, Kapitoil, embraced the related language of high finance and technology in its own idiosyncratic narrator. After a little fine-tuning of the negotiation between Jonny’s tween naïveté and his savvy industry-speak, I came upon his voice. As I wrote, I further researched marketing (and musical) terminology and invented many phrases when they felt right to me.

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine offers a unique perspective on fame and child celebrity—what inspired you to write from Jonny’s perspective and how did the initial concept for the story develop?

Although the world of literary fiction has a fraction of the cultural reach of pop music—and within that world, I’m no Jonny Valentine—when my first novel, Kapitoil, came out, I was a little discomfited by my sudden exposure. Having your work critiqued publicly, doing interviews where one slip of the tongue could result in severe embarrassment, giving readings in front of roomfuls of strangers: it takes a hardy ego to handle these activities with aplomb.

About six months after Kapitoil came out, in October 2010, a friend emailed me asking if I had any ideas for a humor book we could collaborate on. Off the top of my head, I suggested a parody of a pop-star autobiography. Soon after replying, I wondered if this subject matter might fare well as a realistic novel. I had been stumbling along in my little publishing-world microcosm, an adult with a bundle of nerves, and had noticed Justin Bieber, a mere teenager, lapping up global attention. He seemed designed for the rigors and demands of fame; he looked like he was (mostly) enjoying it. What if, though, someone with a mental makeup more like my own had been placed in his position from a very young age? That afternoon, I wrote three thousand words in Jonny’s voice, and raced through a first draft in six months.

Jane, Jonny’s complicated manager and mother, often pushes her young son past his breaking point for the sake of a few extra dollars, yet she also clearly genuinely loves Jonny. It seems almost as if Jane can’t separate her love for him from her ambition. Do you have sympathy for Jane, despite her flaws? Do you think readers should?

I do have sympathy for Jane, and tried to write her as a figure who defies the stage-mom stereotype. She loves Jonny deeply, though it’s worth questioning when that love is selfless versus self-serving. I imagine most readers will dislike her, but hope they see her as a complex character with her own unmet desires.

Jonny becomes increasingly fixated on finding his father: defying his mother, and often his better judgment, in the process. What void is Jonny trying to fill with his search? To you, is Jonny’s journey more about filling this emptiness inside him, or more about accepting that there is an emptiness to begin with?

His story, to me, is the archetypal journey of the teenager (though he’s not yet twelve): attempting to figure out your own identity and, in the process, shedding the protective skin of your guardians (in his case, Jane). Usually, that process includes a measure of angry rebellion, which bubbles up to the surface once in a while for Jonny. What he’s really searching for, beyond his own authentic self hidden somewhere beneath the Jonny Valentine brand, is love—the capacity to love someone else who will stick around and provide unconditional love in return.  He finds an ersatz version of this in his fans’ adoration, and through other members of his entourage, but none of them can provide the same permanent contract of love that family can. Readers can determine for themselves how he responds by the end of the novel.

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