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Doubling up: Two bestselling young adult authors collaborate on a new work

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published April 06. 2010 4:00AM   Updated April 06. 2010 10:15AM
John Green, left, David Levithan, authors of "Will Grayson, Will Grayson."

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."

MORE

If you go:

WHO: R.J. Julia Booksellers present John Green and David Levithan

WHAT: Discussing and signing copies of their young adult novel, "Will Grayson, Will Grayson"

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Hubley Hall, First Congregational Church on the Madison Green, 26 Meeting House Lane, Madison

HOW MUCH: $17.99, includes copy of the book

FOR MORE INFORMATION: (203) 245-3959, rjjulia.com


Reflecting trends

Popular culture moves fast, to paraphrase Ferris Bueller - who is presumably remembered by today's kids as a cobwebbed figure from a distant galaxy.

No one knows about the speed of pop culture more than young adult novelists, whose job at least partially involves reflecting up-to-the-moment trends.

But John Green says you can't get too caught up in such things. For example, in the book, he references the indie band Of Montreal.

"I worry about how long Of Montreal stays relevant, and at the same time I don't," Green says. "It's easy to be out of touch with teenage popular culture. I was out of touch when I was a teen; I was a nerd. The specifics of that stuff mean less to me than what novels can reveal about truth. The same reasons kids like Huck Finn 100 years later or Holden Caulfield 50 years later have nothing to do with popular music or texting but universal truths of love and pity and compassion."

- Rick Koster

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