In the circles of Young Adult literature, they are the literary equivalent of a supergroup. Bestselling young adult authors John Green and David Levithan have collaborated on a new novel called "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," and they appear Saturday at R.J. Julia in Madison.
As with their respective previous works, "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" is at once funny, tender and tense - and explores the major theme of identity as well as tangential contemporary issues faced by teens everywhere. In this case, two different characters are named Will Grayson - one gay and one straight; one depressed and the other hysterically assertive - and a chance meeting between them spins their lives in new directions with unexpected results.
The joint effort between the authors maybe seemed unlikely, if only because Levithan and Green have such strong individual reputations. Levithan is the author of a dozen YA novels, including "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist," on which the recent Michael Cera film was based. And Green books like "Going After Alaska" and "Paper Towns" have established him as a star in the field. Both have been central in reconfiguring language and subject matter in young adult fiction to wittily, poignantly and sometimes graphically reflect the reality of the times.
"We always talk shop about the YA community and about what we're each working on," says Levithan by phone from his New York office last week. "I described this idea I had about two kids with the same name, and I just said, 'Hey, do you want to write it with me?' And John said, 'Cool.'"
In fact, while an undergraduate at Brown, Levithan was frequently confused with another student, David Leventhal - who became a close friend and is a principal with the Mark Morris Dance Group.
"He was already so graceful and, because of our similar names, people would confuse us and see me and say, 'Why is he so clumsy? He's a dancer,'" Levithan says.
Green, calling from his home in Indianapolis, says he was onboard with the project at once.
"It was a real privilege to work with David, and I'm flattered he asked because I'm such a fan of his books. And it was such a great premise," he says.
Both describe the collaborative process as fairly casual by design. They wanted the characters to take on depth and even lead the writers through the process. Other than discussing the basic idea, there were no highly detailed plot outlines. Green took the voice of the straight Will Grayson and wrote those chapters; Levithan did the chapters voiced by the gay Will Grayson. Then they'd get together in John's apartment and read aloud and nuance the material.
"We totally made it up as we went along," Levithan says. "You end up reacting to what the other person has written, and it's exciting. For the first part of the book, we followed parallel stories, so that was easier. But when the plot turns and the two Wills meet, you have to sit up and pay attention. We didn't want this to be a case of two novels transparently tied together."
In that Creative Process fashion, two interesting developments occurred at the outset of the project. Levithan came up with the idea of writing his chapters in all lower case not to only reflect teen trends but also to use the device as a metaphor for his Grayson's self-image.
"At heart, the emotions and experiences of young people don't change," Levithan says. "But the exterior expressions do. Upper case is completely out of favor, and the whole terse and abbreviated style of communicating evolved from texting and e-mails and Facebook. I have a lot of communication with teens, and I'm fascinated by the whole lower case phenomenon and just decided to appropriate it for my Will Grayson. At the same time, my Will sees himself as lower case. The pain in his heart is universal and very real, but this is not a way of expression that would have been around when I was a teen."
For his part, Green introduced the character Tiny Cooper - "the world's largest person who is really, really gay and the world's gayest person who is really really large." Tiny is the sort of character who, right out of the box, is so dynamic that he could either be the subject of his own novel or even swamp the storylines of the respective Wills.
"I like those types that take over a story," Green says. "I'm a big fan of a narrator who isn't the star of the novel, as in Robert Penn Warren's 'All the King's Men.' At the same time, it presents an interesting problem. Tiny is a fun character, but he presents a challenge and an opportunity not to derail the novel."
Fortunately, a balance is beautifully struck, and how all the story lines come together is dynamic and includes more than one breathtaking surprise. Given each author's body of work, fans should be delighted by "Will Grayson, Will Grayson." It's the epitome of possibilities represented by the YA field.
"I set out to write young adult, but with the understanding that the genre had changed and readership included high school and college students," Green says. "I think David and I both realized early on there was a place where you could write ambitiously and thoughtfully about teens."